Gorcums Museum. A showcase of the past, present & future
Gorinchem – home of The Damen Shipyards Group – is a place that does not come easy to the tongue for a non-dutch native; its pronunciation being rather more like ‘gorcum’ than the spelling would suggest. What the city lacks in pronounceability, however, it more than makes up for in aesthetics.
The key to Holland
Gorinchem is a characteristically Dutch location, its gabled brick houses with immaculately painted window shutters leaning precariously, and charmingly, over its network of old streets and canals. The town is still surrounded by its ancient walls – the largest set of defensive works still extant in the Netherlands. Naturally, there are windmills, too. At the heart of the city is the market place, where townspeople gather on the thriving terraces to eat and drink or just watch the world go by. The focal point of the scene is the old town hall, a handsome, classically styled building that, since 1995, has housed the Gorcums Museum. The museum is cared for by curator Rob Kreszner and a small army of dedicated employees and volunteers.
Inside the museum’s permanent exhibition, Rob guides us through the ages, using as navigational aids assorted paintings of Gorinchem from the Dutch Golden Age, a collection of the city’s fine silverware and a host of other artifacts that form a trail leading us right up to the present day. He explains that, though Gorinchem may no longer possess the international renown of former times, it has, throughout history, been a place of great importance.
Gorinchem is a very strategic location, being on the route from Paris to Amsterdam. When Napoleon arrived in the Netherlands, he called it ‘the key to Holland’.
A city rooted in the art of shipbuilding
Pointing to a 17th century image, Rob indicates the depiction of a small workshop and a half-constructed wooden boat on an island in the river, just outside the city walls. Shipbuilding in the city, it seems, goes way back. “The river has been an important element in the economic history of the city,” says Rob. As indeed, it is today.
Friend & foe
Of course, the relationship with the water has not always been a benign one. As well as the ebb and flow of empires, Gorinchem has borne witness to the rise and fall of the rivers over the years. This is made abundantly clear by a collection of paintings showing the city during floods. One image shows shocked onlookers standing on a dike, water pouring into the city as terrified residents clamber to safety atop their half-submerged houses. Another shows the townsfolk pooling together in a familiar looking market place to create flood defences. Though the painting depicts an 18th century scene, the collaboration against a common enemy is somewhat familiar to Josien Damen, a longtime supporter and Friend of the Gorcums Museum. “The last time a part of the town was threatened with flooding was in 1995. We made space at the shipyard for employees to store their furniture and possessions safely until the danger had abated,” she says. After this, the dikes were raised.
A cathedral in the Sun
On the floor above is a unique exhibition, dedicated to so-called Martyrs of Gorinchem, celebrated throughout the Roman Catholic world for the commitment they showed to their faith. At the beginning of the Eighty Years War, as Dutch Protestant rebels wrested control of the country from their Spanish overlords, nineteen Catholic clerics and friars got caught up in the struggle. Captured in Gorinchem, the martyrs were taken to Brielle on the Dutch coast, where they were hanged.
The exhibition features interpretations of the martyrdom depicted on stained glass windows all over the globe. The centerpiece, however is a model showing plans to create what has been called the ‘Open Cathedral’. A small avenue of stained glass windows opposing each other is planted in the ground, leading colourfully towards a central window at the head.
“Gorinchem used to have its own stained glass windows commemorating the event. Nineteen of them, one for each of the martyrs,” explains Rob. “Only seven have survived, though these are all in pieces right now.”
The Open Cathedral project is restoring the seven windows. As part of her support of cultural initiatives in the city, Mrs Damen is involved in the project and takes up the story.
Once restored, the windows will be resituated on the city walls, in the manner shown in the model here. People will be able to visit in order to meditate, or just to enjoy the beauty of the light playing through the glass.
A museum of wide appeal
As well as the permanent, historical exhibitions, temporary displays make the museum attractive to a wider audience – as is demonstrated by the fact that 40% of visitors hail from outside the Gorinchem area.
Previous displays reveal an ambitious net designed to capture the attention of a diverse selection of people – jewellery exhibitions, a collection of different Dutch chairs and even a collection dedicated to that most iconic of Dutch farm creatures, the humble cow. At the time of writing, the museum was hosting an exquisite display of glass art. Vibrant, multi-coloured sculptures and ornaments of intricate detail enticing the viewer through the corridors and connecting rooms.
Naturally, the constant renewal of temporary exhibitions makes the museum repeatedly accessible also for the local population. As Rob states, this is crucial to the success of the museum. “It’s important we connect to the people of the town – including those who work at Damen. We do this via a variety of ways. Social media is very good, and the local news media also are very supportive. Another way we like to involve local people is to invite them to bring along their own items that are relevant to an exhibition and display them here for a while.”
A good example of this is the regular school visits that the museum hosts. Children come from all over the area to visit the museum in a programme called Kunst for Kids (art for children), during which they also visit the local libraries, archives and theatres.
Mrs Damen says, “Many of these schools are located in the countryside, so these visits can act as a cultural lifeline to rural areas. We invite the children to be inspired by what they see and make their own art works based on it. When their works are then exhibited, it has the added benefit of encouraging their families to also come and visit. It’s very good for the children; something of such a visit will always remain in their minds.”